How Can I Identify My Trees and Shrubs?

Hispanic woman sketching flowers in garden
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Question: How Can I Identify My Trees and Shrubs?


There are thousands of plant species from around the world. When you buy a plant at the store, it usually has an identification tag on it that tells you its name, species and growing conditions. This is imperative to know so you can choose the right trees and shrubs.

Sometimes, however, you may come across a plant in your garden or out in the wild that is unfamiliar. With the help of an identification key (called a dichotomous key) and a glossary, you can identify gardening plants so that you can care for them properly.

Steps to Identifying Your Plants

First, you should write down as much as you can about the plant. Take a picture to help you remember the characteristics. For flowering plants, cut off a stem with flowers if possible.

This process can be accomplished either with a book or website. In either case, you answer the questions that are presented. You will be asked to choose from two or more options. This will lead you to another question. Once you have completed enough questions to narrow down the genus and species, you will be able to identify your trees and shrubs.

A botanical glossary is useful to have around since many of these keys use the technical terms to describe the characteristics of the plant. Unless you already happen to know that hirsute means hairy, for example, you might choose the wrong option in the key and go down the wrong path.

Our Forestry Guide, Steve Nix, has outlined many different ways you can identify your trees.

As for books, I recommend starting with the Peterson Field Guide series. They have books on trees in different regions, complete with a dichotomous key to help sort them all out.